INGLEWOOD, Calif. — He is the Plato of the hardwood, the man who is taking this all down, frame by frame. Every moment, every bus ride, the happy talk after a win, the frustrated looks after a loss.
The Pistons in La-La Land.
A new film by John Salley.
“SMIIILE!” yells the voice inside the RCA video recorder. “That’s right! It’s Big Time Rick Mahorn! Say hello, Rick! . . . Aw, man, that’s nasty! . .
. Hey! Hey! It’s Big Time Adrian Dantley! Say hel . . . come on, AD! Smile or somethin’!.”
We are reviewing the film — three days’ worth — in his small hotel room, prior to the Pistons’ 108-96 loss to the Lakers in Game 2. We are watching through a tiny viewfinder. This is the way the big movies are made, isn’t it? Just like this? In hotel rooms? In little viewfinders?
“Watch this coming up,” says Salley. “This is where we got that guy from Channel 9 to apologize for saying we wouldn’t win a single game in this series. This is cool.”
Inside the viewfinder, an obviously uncomfortable TV sports anchor is standing next to Bill Laimbeer, who towers over him.
Laimbeer: We want a formal apology to the team and the people of Detroit, right here, in front of the camera, so we can all see what a jerk you are.
Reporter: I apologize, Oh great city of Detroit . . .
This is good stuff. This is funny stuff. True, this is not what you would call an artsy film. This is not film noir. This is not new cinema; this is more like BOO! cinema. As in: BOO! There’s a camera in front of your face. Say something.
“Here we have a picture of Rick Mahorn’s butt,” says Salley’s voice inside the viewfinder, as the camera focuses. “Wait, let me back up a bit . . . ” Director, producer, narrator . . .
Salley presses the fast-forward button. You have to smile. Here is your Uncle Gus shooting the Super 8 at the family barbecue. Here is Daddy, making the home movies at his daughter’s wedding. The Pistons come to LA. They win a game, they lose a game. They come home to Detroit. The camera hums.
How did Salley — the youngest guy on the team — inherit this job? How was he chosen to record the laughs, the scenery, the assorted moods of the Pistons’ ride to the end of the NBA rainbow? Was it his unique view on life? His cinema verite approach?
“I was the only one to remember my camera.”
Well. Whatever. This is his role now. His teammates see him coming and ask
“Where’s the camera?” Photographers see him coming and take pictures of him taking pictures.
He walks through the hotel with the RCA around his neck. On the shuttle bus, with the RCA around his neck. Into the Forum, with the RCA around his neck. He is the director, the producer, the best boy, and the key grip. He is also the narrator.
“Dum-dum . . . dum-dum . . . dum-dum . . . ” sings his voice inside the viewfinder, recalling the music from “Jaws”. The camera pans on the oversized feet of Chuck Nevitt, then moves slowly up to his knees, then his waist, then his chest, then finally — “Dum-dum . . . dum-dum!” — to his face.
“CHUCKIE . . . CHEESE!”
What a moment.
Here, in several mini-cassettes, is the documentary of this Detroit joy ride to date. There is the scene at the airport when the Pistons board the plane at Metro, and the scene at the airport where they disembark in Los Angeles. There is the bus ride to the hotel, and the bus ride to the Forum.
There is the morning after the Game 1, where trainer Mike Abdenour holds up an LA newspaper (“Lakers Fail First Final”). And no doubt there will be the morning after Game 2, the disappointment, the vows to win again. All part of the story. There is Isiah Thomas laughing, and Dantley scowling. There is Joe Dumars just staring at the lens, a standoff, three seconds, four seconds, until Salley finally points the camera at something else.
“BUDDAH! YO BUDDAH!” says the voice as the face of James Edwards fills the tiny screen.
“That’s right. That’s me,” says Edwards, squinting his eyes. “Bud-dah! Bud-dah! . . . ” Next year, joke’s on Rothstein
This will be the wave of the future, right? This will be the new documentary. You want to know what really went on in this NBA final? See the movie. Salley has an arrangement with NBA Entertainment to take his raw footage, edit it down, and make a neat little feature.
“Will you give one to everybody on the team?” I ask him.
“Yeah,” he says. “And then one day next year, we’ll be sitting around the locker room, and Ronnie (Rothstein, the assistant coach) will slip in the cassette figuring it’s the game films — and there we’ll be. Living it up in LA.”
Living it up. He is the chronicler now, the tallest living filmmaker, the collector of memories in a battery-operated, hand-held camera. Who knows? One day his work may be compared with Fellini, DeMille, Bergman, or maybe Stallone.
“Watch this here,” he says. Inside the viewfinder, is a shot of the shower in the Pistons’ locker room. Then a close-up: The soap.
More like Stallone, I guess.
Mitch Albom will sign copies of his book, “The Live Albom,” today from noon to 1:30 p.m. at Little Professor in Ann Arbor, from 4:30 to 6 p.m. at Little Professor in Plymouth, from 7 to 8:30 p.m. at Birmingham Book Store, and from 9 to 11 p.m. at Sam’s Jams in Ferndale.